Beryl and Susanne stood discreetly to the side at first, in case Maggie felt overwhelmed. Maggie stopped what she was doing and gave Sally a broad smile.
“Nice to see you, lass.” There was a pause while she put her knitting to the side. “Have you brought the Australians with you?”
Sally was right, Beryl thought. Maggie’s mind was sharp as a knife.
“Yes,” Sally said, gesturing Beryl and Susanne forward. “Here they are. Euan’s granddaughter and great-granddaughter all the way from the other side of the world.”
Maggie held out a hand, which Beryl and Susanne took turns to shake as they greeted her. Her grip was a lot stronger than Beryl had expected. Not at all weak or papery. In fact, it was quite the opposite, the handshake of someone with terrific determination.
“This is a very special moment for me,” Maggie told them.
“For us, too,” Beryl said. “We’re so grateful that you’ve allowed us to come here and meet you, Maggie. It’s incredible to be given the chance to meet my mum’s stepmother. I’ve been reliably informed that you’re the official matriarch of the McIntosh clan.”
Maggie’s lips twitched with pleasure.
“We centenarians do seem to attract some attention.”
“Deservedly so.” Susanne smiled.
“Well, now, find yourselves seats,” Maggie said with an energy that belied her years. “We’ve got a lot to talk about and I’m sure there must be things you’d like to ask me. I hear tell you’re keen to find out all you can about how and why Nell and Jean were shipped to Australia.”
“If you’re happy to tell us what you know, that would be wonderful,” Beryl said, while Sally and Susanne disappeared to find seats.
“I’ll tell you everything. Euan would want me to. He was one of life’s gentlest souls, your grandad. He didn’t dwell on all the unhappiness he’d been through, but it was in there.” She patted her chest. “Deep inside his heart. It’s their story, not mine, but he spoke about Jean, Nell and Douglas quite a bit, particularly in the months just before he died, so I dare say I might be able to shed a wee bit more light on the circumstances surrounding what happened.”
Beryl was pleased to hear that because there were one or two questions she wanted to ask Maggie; questions that Martin, Sally and Helen had been unable to answer. Not because Jean had kept things secret from them, but more likely because they were things that no-one had wanted to talk about. That was a mistake, Beryl now realised, that a lot of families probably made, keeping quiet about things that needed aired. Of course, one of the lessons she’d learned since arriving in Scotland was that, to those who remember it, the past makes sense. Whereas, for those who rely on someone else’s account, gaps in history can be incredibly frustrating.
“Can you tell us,” she said a few moments later, “why, in the space of a year, Grandad Euan never once went back to visit Jean and Nell at the children’s home?”
“Rules,” Maggie informed her. “They had strict rules.”
“Why was that?” Susanne asked.
“It was the thinking of the time, I’m afraid, dear. You see, some daft person somewhere probably a so-called expert decided that children placed in homes were better off not seeing their birth parents or natural families even if the birth parents were still alive.
“Euan told me that every single letter he wrote to Jean and Nell was returned to him unopened.”
“That’s shocking!” Sally exclaimed.
Beryl’s heart squeezed.
“So he wanted to keep in contact, but wasn’t allowed. And then, when he did come back to Dundee, he was too late.
“By just one week . . .” Maggie began.